The unconventional legacy of Dominique Dawes

Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

Dominique Dawes was one of the leaders of the Magnificent Seven, which also included Shannon Miller, Jaycie Phelps, Dominique Moceanu, Amanda Borden, Amy Chow and Kerri Strug.

In July and August, espnW's weekly essay series will focus on body image. 

Dominique Dawes was one of only seven to make it to the Olympic team in 1996, out of millions of girls who practice gymnastics.

Aside from the near impossibility of this achievement, there were even more predetermined challenges set for Dawes from the moment she entered the gym -- simply because the sport wasn't cultivated for black girls like her. Her body was considered deviant or exotic even before she began her routine.

In a 1995 Los Angeles Times article, writer Maryann Hudson documented that Dawes' critics believed that "her look wasn't quite right," her legs were "bowed" or knees "knobby" and her hair "askew." Dawes faced more than skewed perceptions of body image at the time -- she confronted centuries of racial prejudice that had grown in the sport of gymnastics. 

The sport began in ancient Greece, but Germany and Czechoslovakia produced the current form of gymnastics in the early 19th century. In the second half of the 1900s, gymnasts from the Soviet Union dominated.

Some of the most accomplished gymnasts were Larisa Latynina and Olga Korbut, who were described by publications as "beautiful" and "pixie," images that invoked their elegance, diminutiveness and attractiveness. Then during the Cold War, while the Soviet Union and the U.S. competed militarily, economically and politically, the tension manifested in gymnastics. 

As Ann Kordas wrote in the book "Girlhood: A Global History," the U.S. used images of young, productive, female gymnasts to demonstrate their country's superiority, showing the American gymnast was able to discipline her body to produce superhuman-like strength.

***

Not only does the female gymnast represent liberation through her movement -- which can arguably be seen as feminist -- but she smashes social conventions on how a woman should present herself, according to Ann Chisholm, assistant professor in the department of communication studies at California State University, Northridge. When a gymnast flies in the air and bends her body before landing back on the floor in a balanced, poised form, that execution disregards natural law and physical restriction.

For the female gymnast, her movement liberates her from expectations of what her body can and cannot do. Female gymnasts are generally petite and almost perpetually styled with a smile on their faces. They generate this idea of cuteness and adorableness.

When Dawes leapt through the air, stretching and contorting her body in front of a room teeming with white faces, she showed them, as well as the rest of the world, how black women could move and excel in traditionally white spaces, even if they had to take flight to do so. As a black woman, unlike her white female teammates, she was not afforded the chance to be "cute" or "innocent."

It's been 20 years since that fateful summer of 1996, but Dawes' influence still reverberates throughout our present-day, brown-skinned, world-famous gymnasts. We live in an era when black gymnasts are more prolific, when it doesn't take much effort to find a Gabby Douglas or a Simone Biles. But the racism is still as pervasive.

In 2012, Douglas was criticized for her hair despite becoming the first African-American woman in Olympic history to become an individual all-around champion. She was also given the nickname "Flying Squirrel," which Dawes dismissed, arguably because it reduced Douglas to an animal and not a black woman. (Dawes' nickname was "Awesome Dawesome.") And after Biles became world champion, Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito joked that maybe she should paint her skin black in order to win, as if the sport was not nurtured for white women like her.

In the August issue of Teen Vogue, Douglas admitted that the criticism of her hair and her "muscular" arms was so immense that she often felt like quitting. Biles said that she used to be self-conscious of her body, since it is "stockier" than those of her contemporaries, but that she has been able to move past that insecurity.

Dawes' legacy is unconventional, not only because of the way she found gymnastics but also because the sport, like many others, was not one in which every competitor had equal standing. By her presence alone, her body was politicized and isolated from everyone else. It was also under more intense scrutiny.

Yet all of that disappeared when she performed. When Dawes took to her floor routine in the 1996 Summer Olympics and landed her double layouts, 2.5-twist punch front through and full-in back-out without her knees wobbling or her legs giving out on her, she did more than just make history as the first African-American to win an individual Olympic medal in women's gymnastics, she subverted it.

She did not get rid of the social and gendered dichotomies; rather, those notions harmoniously coexisted in her one body and the world has never been the same. Dominique Dawes' body might not have been the norm, but neither was a black female in the history of gymnastics. And thankfully, because of her perseverance and sheer talent, she made it possible for more gifted black female gymnasts like herself to receive attention and acclaim.

Morgan Jerkins is a New York writer and contributing editor at Catapult. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Elle, BuzzFeed and The Atlantic, among many others. Her debut essay collection, "This Will Be My Undoing," is forthcoming from Harper Perennial.

Related Content